Counting Calories or Counting Carbs: What’s the Difference?
If you’re thinking about changing your eating patterns to lose weight, you may have considered two very popular options — counting calories or counting carbohydrates. While both options can lead to weight loss, there are major differences. Here’s what you need to know to determine which might approach would be the best fit for you and your lifestyle.
All foods (and some drinks) contain calories. We get calories from each macronutrient — carbohydrates, fat, protein, and alcohol — which our body then uses as energy. The idea behind calorie counting is to burn more calories than what you eat, also referred to as “calories in vs. calories out.”
According to the USDA, you need to reduce your daily calories by 500 to lose one pound in a week, or 1,000 calories per day to lose two pounds. This can be done by consuming fewer calories and by burning calories through exercise. How many calories you need is dependent on various factors including your age, height, sex, activity level, and more. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend women eat the following calories based on age:
- Ages 19-30 years: 2,000-2,400 calories
- Ages 31-59 years: 1,800-2,200 calories
- 60+ years: 1,600-2,000 calories
Men need a bit more calories compared to women:
- Ages 19-30 years: 2,400-3,000 calories
- 31-59 years: 2,200-3,000 calories
- 60+ years: 2,000-2,600 calories
Of the two options, calorie counting may be a bit more simple. Calorie amounts per serving can be easily found on nutrition labels, and many health-based apps that are available allow you to simply input the foods you eat to see where your total calories are for the day. The downfall is that calorie counting doesn’t consider your nutrition needs. Many “diet foods” consider themselves to be low-calorie, but they do not contain essential vitamins and minerals. That’s why the CDC recommends choosing foods that contain fiber and are low in fat, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and nuts.
What research says about counting calories
A 2017 study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science claims that lowering the total calories consumed may not be the best approach to losing weight. Counting calories short-term can result in reduced body weight, but in the long-term, many different gut hormones change to favor increased appetite and may cause the weight to come back. The same study states that long-term low-calorie diets ended up causing around one-third to two-thirds of dieters to gain more weight than they had initially lost.
A review published in Global Health Action states that when it comes to counting calories, many individuals don’t consider where the calorie is coming from. For example, if you limit yourself to 2,000 calories per day, but are choosing ready-to-eat, processed foods with limited fiber and nutrients, but high in salt or unhealthy fats, you’re not benefiting your health. In fact, choosing those types of foods may lead to a short and rapid loss in weight, but it tends to be your fat-free mass (organs, muscle, bone, tissue, and water) rather than accumulated fat mass, which is not ideal.
Unlike calories, not every food contains carbohydrates. Common foods and drinks that contain carbs include starchy, sugary, and refined foods. For example, you’ll find carbs in:
- Soft drinks
- Cakes and pies
While everyone is different, the Food and Nutrition Board of IOM set the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of carbohydrates at 130 grams per day for both men and women. This is the absolute minimum needed for our brain to function. The acceptable macronutrient distribution range (AMDR) for carbs is anywhere between 45 percent and 65 percent of your total daily calories. Therefore, if you’re consuming around 2,000 calories per day that puts your daily carb intake at 225 to 325 grams. Some low-carb diets, such as the keto diet, recommend eating under 50 grams of carbs per day which causes your body to use ketone bodies as fuel instead of carbs.
You can find the total grams of carbohydrates in foods listed on the nutrition facts, which include both fiber and sugar. This makes it easy to see how many grams per serving a food will provide. Unfortunately, there are cons to carb counting. Many foods that don’t contain carbohydrates, such as red meat, eggs, and butter, are high in unhealthy fats and calories. On the other hand, many high-carb foods can be a good source of fiber, protein, and vitamins which we may miss out on if we’re keeping them limited.
What research says about counting carbs
Carbohydrate counting is standard practice for individuals with diabetes. Both the quality and quantity of carbs can impact blood sugar levels, potentially causing large fluctuations. Any time our blood sugar rises after a high-carb meal, our insulin levels also increase in order to get our blood sugar back to a normal range. According to a 2021 review, insulin is a hormone that can cause us to go into a fat-storing state. If we take on a low carb approach with carb counting, it’s likely to lead to weight loss with many individuals seeing rapid results in the first 6 to 12 months.
Not everyone believes that counting carbs is the way to go. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans believe that limiting carbs could be more harmful than helpful since Americans eat too few carbs that come from healthy sources including fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes.
Only 1 in 10 adults meet the federal fruit or vegetable recommendations. Plus, some research states that lowering carbohydrates can also wind up lowering your life span. A 2018 study published in the European Society of Cardiology found that individuals eating the lowest amount of carbs had a 32 percent higher risk of all-cause death. The risks of death from coronary heart disease increased by 51 percent, cerebrovascular disease increased by 50 percent, and cancer increased by 35 percent.
Along with missing out on the benefits carbs can bring to the table when you limit them you’re likely to turn to fat and protein-rich foods to compensate. This could end up negatively impacting your lipid levels, including “bad” LDL cholesterol.
Bottom Line: Both calorie and carb counting are likely to help with weight loss.
Note that there is some concern about long-term effects. In both cases, you need to ensure that you’re choosing whole foods that are nutrient-dense while avoiding processed foods that are high in sugar and salt.
For additional guidance, work with a registered dietitian. They can ensure that you’re meeting your nutrient needs and that you’re following your carb or calorie counting in the healthiest way possible.
For more expert advice, visit The Beet's Health & Nutrition category.